Solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse made its first international flight on May 13. The plane lifted off at a small airfield at Payerne, Switzerland at 8:40 in the morning, despite a flight delay caused by strong wind gusts.
The journey led the pilot and co-founder Andre Borschberg across France, Luxembourg and Belgium. Thirteen hours later when the 370 mile flight was complete, the plane landed at Brussels airport in Belgium. Borschberg believes that the project is symbolic of his vision for the future, where homes and cars can be powered by using existing technology and the sun.
Wingspan of a Boeing 777
The Solar Impulse project started in 2003 when the solar aircraft team was awarded with a 10-year budget of €90 million. Involved in the project were engineers from Schindler, a Swiss lift-maker, and researchers from Solvay, a Belgian chemical company. The plane consists of 12,000 solar cells and boasts the wingspan of a Boeing 777.
The mid-May flight was the aircraft's fifth successful flight and the first one to be conducted outside of Switzerland. Solar Impulse has not only proven the capable distance of a solar aircraft, but also the longevity of flight; last year the plane succeeded in flying for 26 hours without needing to stop to re-charge its solar cells.
Can Solar Aircraft Compete With Commercial Planes?
Despite breakthroughs by the Solar Impulse project, commercial jets can travel over ten times the speed of the Solar Impulse plane. A flight from Switzerland to Belgium is typically only a little over an hour. That is significantly more time-efficient than the thirteen-hour flight conducted by the Solar Impulse project.
The project team acknowledges that it is not easy to squeeze a very slow plane into the commercial air traffic system. The team is hoping to fly an improved, larger prototype in either 2012 or 2013. This new aircraft will face the daunting challenge of traveling around the world.
If successful, this would be a remarkable accomplishment for the solar energy and aviation industries.
Key Statistics – Green Aviation Market (source: GBI Research)
- The aviation industry's carbon emission volume has doubled since 1990 to 670 million tons per year. That figure is predicted to double again by 2025 to an estimated 1,480 million tons per year.
- Although scientists differ in their predictions regarding the impact of aviation emissions, most figures reside between 1.9 and 2.7 times.
- Currently trading at less than $20 a ton in the EU, the International Energy Agency has warned that carbon credits should trade at no less than $50 per ton by 2020 and roughly $110 by 2030 to make technological solutions attractive economically.